I recently reviewed Daniel Westberg’s Renewing Moral Theology. On page 96, Westberg quotes something that Geoffrey Bromiley says about human sinfulness:
“And even if one does the good or avoids the evil, how easily it is all soured by the self-righteous satisfaction that for once at least one has done a pure and blameless deed.”
That did resonate with me when I first read it. The next day, well, it did not so much.
When I first read it, I could see myself in what Bromiley was saying. I can easily pat myself on the back when I do something good, even though there are plenty of deficiencies in my character. Moreover, I agree with Bromiley that doing something good can lead me to become proud. That pride is not entirely valid on my part, for I do not always do good, and I have sinned. I need forgiveness.
But, as I go through the day, beat myself up, and think about others’ criticisms and judgments of me, I get to the point where I say: “Look, I am not totally bad!” I have done good things in my life. I have helped people. Who are other people to call me selfish, as if that is the sum total of my character? Don’t I deserve to give myself credit, at least once in a while?
I don’t think that evangelical Christianity is particularly helpful on this issue. When evangelical Christians are preaching the Gospel to the unsaved, their goal is to convince the unsaved (with the Holy Spirit’s help) that they indeed are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. In doing that, they point out that the unsaved person is flawed, even if he may have done some good thing. Once a person accepts Jesus, however, a person feels a need to convince herself (or others) that she truly has been regenerated by God, and one sign that Christians point to is fruit of the Spirit and a declining pattern of sin in one’s life. Even Westberg mentions the view that sin in a believer’s life is occasional.
So evangelicals try to convince the unsaved that they are bad by pointing to their flaws, or by encouraging them to be honest about their own flaws. Then, once the unsaved accept Christ, they are expected to switch gears and to try to look for good in their lives so they can feel assured that they actually have been born again. Does that make any sense? Here’s a thought: People are good and bad, whether they have accepted Christ or not. I know that I cannot generalize about evangelicals, for there are evangelicals who believe that they are still sinners in need of grace, even after conversion, and there are also evangelicals who are critical of Christians looking to their good works for assurance. But I am critiquing an evangelical approach that is out there. It is not a figment of my imagination.
I have been reading my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha for my daily quiet time. Right now, I am in the Letter of Aristeas, which is about the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek Septuagint. Aristeas talks about his attempt to persuade King Ptolemy of Egypt to release the Jewish slaves and soldiers from captivity, and Aristeas says that “whatsoever men think to do in piety in the way of righteousness and attention to good works, God the Lord of all directs their acts and intentions” (R.J.H. Shutt’s translation). This is in the context of Aristeas’ hope that God will move the king to release the Jews from captivity. It does raise some profound questions, though. Is everything good that humans think and do from God? If so, then is not God responsible when we do not do good and instead do evil: did God drop the ball by not motivating us to do good, in that case?
Whatever my questions, I do believe that, whenever I am attracted to good, that is the work of God within me and upon me, in some way, shape, or form. I like something that Westberg says in his book about the work of the Holy Spirit within us: that it makes virtue look attractive to us. I may be far from perfection. I cannot say that there is a declining pattern of sin in my life, for sin and selfishness are a part of me during the majority of most days. Yet, virtue is important to me, and I recognize the value of at least trying to get outside of myself and to have love for others. The problem is that there are times when I am trying to do so while kicking and screaming—-when I am outwardly showing love, while inwardly seething with resentment. Westberg talks some about that situation in his book. In those cases, I am reminded of my continual need for God’s grace to be and to do good.
How can I do good without falling into pride? I can remember that God is the one motivating me to do good. And I can keep in mind that good is good because it is good: sure, God may reward us for doing it, but it is what we are supposed to be doing anyway.